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Submitted Literature

Guises of Desire

By Hilda Reilly


Guises of Desire by Hilda Reilly

Hilda Reilly describes herself as  “ a writer who engages with controversial situations and who works on the principle that ‘ an enemy is someone whose story hasn’t been heard’” This is  a good place to begin when reviewing her novel “Guises of Desire” a fictionalised account of of one Bertha Pappenheim who was living in Vienna around the end of the 19th century. In reality Bertha Pappenheim is the famous Anna O. of psychoanalytic fame. (Her illness, treatment and cure formed the basis of Freud’s seminal work on hysteria, which in its turn was based on the work carried out by Josef Breuer. 

The novel is about Bertha Poppenheim’s life, times, illness and recovery from illness-although the exact nature of that illness remains contentious. (It is this mystery that makes  “Guises of Desire” feel like a detective novel. Who-or what- is responsible for Bertha’s illness? Is it the result of being a woman? Is it repressed emotion-erotic and otherwise? Is it a consequence of being Jewish? Is it the result of being a very intelligent woman with no outlet for her learning and drives? Or is it caused by an entirely organic difficulty-epilepsy? Or a combination of these elements?  Like all my favourite detective novels, the answer is ambiguous. What is fascinating is how Bertha’s times and culture chose to interpret her symptoms.

What would a contemporary psychoanalyst make of her? Indeed, what does contemporary psychoanalysts make of “hysteria”? One answer would be “they don’t” one view was that hysteria was a uterine problem-literally a floating womb. Another was that it was caused by repressed memories. According to Rycroft’s Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (Penguin 1968) “… no contemporary analyst would maintain that they provide an adequate explanation of hysteria.” But, he adds,  “…psychoanalysts who work in private practice are none the less quite familiar with hysterical phenomena” So, like the floating womb; the diagnosis seems to move around.

To return to the story, Bertha develops a series of behaviours over a number of years that are understood by Josef Breuer to be psychosomatic. So she looses the ability to speak her native German, using a mixture of languages. At time she reverts to baby talk. At other times she is partially paralysed. She develops dreadful neuralgia and toothache, eased only by morphine-to which she is soon addicted. (This becomes a secondary problem for her to manage.) Some of these problems are attributed to her family life. The death of her father. The relationship with her younger brother. The view her mother holds of being good. Society’s views of what are suitable accomplishments for a young woman. And, of course, sex. Sexual desire may never be acknowledged-except, perhaps, in the marital bed. Oedipal desire had not been “invented” so could not be acknowledged. Menstruation was shameful. Masturbation was even worse! The lot of a respectable woman was to be a homemaker with few ambitions beyond finding the best fishmonger or butcher.

After a long struggle with herself and society, Bertha becomes a Social worker, writer, activist and more. She is presented as driven-but, mostly, fulfilled-woman who has made her mark on the wider world. What is not clear is if she is happy. Perhaps that is not the right question.

Hilda Reilly’s observation about an enemy being someone whose story has not been heard sums up Bertha. She is surrounded by enemies, all clamouring to be heard. “Guises …” is about how she tries to allow these enemies a voice. It is a superb novel. She writes superbly well and is thoroughly informed about her subject. As Dr. Deborah Serani has written, “This book is a gift to anyone interested in psychoanalysis and the textures of human experience."


Key Themes:

  • Hysteria
  • Neurological Disorders
  • Psychoanalysis

Reference: Hilda, Reilly. 2012. Guises of Desire. Dicatur Press, 2012


- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Monday 7th April 2014